By Nozomi Kurioka The Daily May 28, 2019
Just days after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 school children and six staff members were killed, Washington grandmother Margaret Heldring was sitting down to have dinner with three of her friends.
“We realized at that moment, we were all grandmothers of six-year-olds,” she said. “And in the course of that conversation popped the idea: Grandmothers Against Gun Violence.”
Grandmothers Against Gun Violence (GAGV) is a nonprofit grassroots organization that advocates gun safety and responsibility and the reduction of gun violence with the goal of creating a safer world for their grandchildren. The group began with just a few grandmothers and since has grown to a group of 1,200. Though Seattle-based and mainly active in Washington state, members reside in 30 different states around the country.
“Sandy Hook was a start of another gun violence prevention movement in this county, and the Washington state legislature, very much like Congress, failed to do anything in response,” Heldring, chair and founder of GAGV, said. “It was going to be up to the people.”
Debbie McDonald, board member and co-chair of partnerships and collaboration for GAGV, mentioned the three areas of focus for GAGV: getting educated on the topic; advocating to change legislation, and financially supporting gun violence research.
One of the first accomplishments of GAGV was to help pass Initiative 594, which requires background checks when purchasing guns. In collaboration with other gun violence prevention groups, they needed to gather over 246,000 signatures so that the proposed initiative would be placed on the ballot.
GAGV asked for signatures at ferry lines, Husky football games, grocery store parking lots, and street corners. They also spoke about the initiative at nursing homes and senior centers to educate people about the initiative.
“It was very exciting and it was new work for a lot of grandmothers,” Heldring said, though it wasn’t new to all of them. “Maybe they had done it in the 1960s.”
“There is power in sisterhood and the sort of collegiality with it,” McDonald said. “It’s really empowering.”
GAGV alone gathered 30,000 signatures and the initiative passed in 2014.
While educating the public about gun violence, its causes, and how people can prevent such incidents, GAGV worked again to rally for Initiative 1491, which introduced extreme risk protection orders to remove an individual's access to firearms if they are “considered a significant danger to himself or herself or others.” This was a big win for the group, according to McDonald, with all but one county passing the initiative.
This was the first time GAGV went to Olympia to testify for the cause. They have been to Olympia for six years in a row now and the number of people wearing orange (the color of gun violence prevention) has grown by the year.
They gathered again to help garner support for Initiative 1639, which included safe storage, implementing a 21-year-old minimum age to buy a firearm, and a training requirement for the purchase of an assault weapon.
“Considering where we are compared to 2012 and where we are now, it’s night and day,” Heldring said.
However, Heldring realizes there is still much left to do.
In 2014, GAGV marched with Moms Demand Action at the Seattle Public Library to protest against guns inside libraries. However, there is still no law to prohibit such act.
Along with educating the public and advocating for initiatives, GAGV has also understood the need for research about gun safety.
“We understood from very early on that there was no current research going on about gun violence except for a couple of academic people scrambling to find a few dollars because the NRA persuaded the U.S. Congress to stop funding any research on gun violence,” Heldring said.
GAGV understood this need and made two installments of $10,000 to the University of Washington School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology to research gun violence in 2017 and 2018. This soon resulted in three research papers to be published on major, high impact journals in health sciences.
One, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, highlighted the importance of limiting access to firearms in households where there are elders who show symptoms of depression and, particularly, dementia. A second published in JAMA Pediatrics concluded that the children in households with an adult who misuses alcohol may more likely live with an unsafely stored firearm. And a third that appeared in the American Journal of Public Health examined the relationship between safe storage practice and suicide risk factors. The GAGV funding contributed greatly to the publication, raising awareness and educating the public about gun violence.
Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, a professor at the department of epidemiology, received much of this funding.
“That $10,000 could be more powerful than millions and millions of dollars that would come from other sources because you know how much passion, how much commitment behind that cause to provide this gift to us,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “Especially when you think about the burden of this disease [of gun violence], there is no doubt that a large program is needed, but at the same time, this $20,000 shows that if it is spend wisely, it can go a long way and be very, very impactful.”
He also mentioned two reasons why the installments were spent well for a good cause. First, it helped to create a pipeline of researchers. There was a lost generation in this area of study because of the lack of funding and many were highly discouraged to enter this field of study. Indeed, the money helped one graduate student at the UW, Erin Morgan, to conduct the research. She is an author in all three papers.
The second reason why such funding is important is that it may encourage better tracking and surveillance of gun violence, namely through the return of gun-related questions in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), a national survey that asks important questions related to health. According to Rowhani-Rahbar, firearms questions in the survey became optional after 2004.
“These papers, when they get published, they may go toward encouraging the return of gun questions on a national level,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. Washington state was able to generate the funds to add the firearm question, but is still one of few across the nation to do so, according to Rowhani-Rahbar.
And though the group has canvassed tens of thousands of signatures and raised tens of thousands of dollars for gun violence research over the years, according to Heldring, GAGV was initially faced with ageism and had their work minimized. They had to fight for their authority as well along the way by persistently showing up and doing good work. Heldring said this has led them to portray a new image of a grandmother, being praised by the community for their genuine support and passion.
Visibility has been an integral part of GAGV’s growth as well. Sarah Dean, strategic outreach coordinator of GAGV, focuses on reaching out and introducing their organization to diverse communities. Dean explained that with the initial creation of the organization as a response to Sandy Hook, many seem to have a misconception that GAGV only focuses on school violence and mass shootings.
“My job is to try to broaden the focus and be understood that our organization is against gun violence in all forms,” she said. She tries to make GAGV an inclusive place for people of all backgrounds to advocate for safer communities, highlighting that “there is no line drawn” on who is affected by gun violence.
An African American women herself, Dean says she understands how the black and brown community respond to gun violence, including police shooting. She works directly with the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington and local police departments to provide more information and raise trust to communities who feel less included in the gun violence movement.
To keep with the spirit of inclusion, the group has even invited the National Rifle Association to speak at past events. GAGV may truly take down the rusted barriers between the divided groups.
Ultimately, it is the change in cultural norms surrounding guns and safety that GAGV is fighting for.
“There are all kinds of conversations and assumptions we can shift to make things safer,” Kathy Knowlton, Communications Committee Member of GAGV said. As with seat belts, drunken driving, and someday possibly with irresponsible gun ownership, more conversation surrounding these dangerous behaviors may lead the way for the culture to change.
“You don’t have to wait until elections to insist on change and you don’t have to always aim national,” Heldring said.
According to Heldring, you do not have to be a grandmother to become a member. They are always seeking for more to join them in their journey for a safer world.